Tuesday, August 07, 2012

Sikhs and Muslims, Shootings and Burnings: Rescuing the American Experiment

This last Sunday morning the horrible news broke out of Oak Creek, Wisconsin and quickly spread through the media. As Sikhs gathered at the place of prayer and worship in a local gurdwara outside Milwaukee, a man walked through the parking lot and shot individuals before moving into the worship facility and shooting worshipers, including the community’s religious leader. At the end of the incident seven people were dead, including the suspect, who was killed by a police officer. Several others were wounded and three people remain in the hospital in critical condition.

In the initial hours after the shooting, the incident following just weeks after another mass shooting in a crowded Aurora, Colorado movie-theater, the media speculated as to the motives for the shooter. While little is known for certain as the investigation continues, some media outlets are reporting that the shooter had connections to white supremacy ideology. If confirmed it would make this incident a hate crime.

Of course this is not the first case of hate crime directed at Sikhs. Sikhism has been the unfortunate recipient of religious misidentification and hatred since 9/11. In the days following the September 2001 terrorist attacks, Sikhs, identified by turbans and beards among males, were assumed to be Muslims by vengeance-minded and religiously illiterate Americans, and as a result, some were assaulted and killed in cases of mistaken religious identity. This unacceptable state of affairs continues to be a major problem for the Sikh community, so much so that some Sikh men have considered violating their deeply held religious practices by cutting their long hair and removing their turbans. The incidents of violence have been so numerous that some members of Congress have urged the FBI to begin collecting data on how the Sikh community has become the special focus of hate crimes paralleling that directed at Muslims. Understandably, the Sikh community nationwide now lives in a state of fear.

In addition to the shooting at the Sikh temple in Michigan, this week saw another incident of religiously inspired violence. This one was directed at Islam as a mosque was burned to the ground in Joplin, Missouri, just one month after it had previously been the target of arson.

It has been over a decade since 9/11, and the recent violence toward Sikhs and Muslims is a clear signal that America still bristles at its experiment with religious pluralism. Many times, perhaps not so violently, the melting pot is not mixing, and those who chaff at the presence of certain religions on the American landscape make their displeasure known through acts of violence.

Even so, there has been positive pushback from those opposed to hate crimes directed at religious groups. The communities in Wisconsin and Missouri are rallying around the Sikhs and Muslims as they come to grips with grief, fear, and how to overcome these challenges. In addition, religious groups are lending support and speaking out from diverse places. Recently The Hindu American Foundation issued a statement discussing their outrage at the attacks and their support with the victims. The earth-based religions making up the pagan community have also been supportive expressing interfaith condolences through Cherry Hill Seminary and other noted personalities within the pagan movement.

Although it has not often responded well to the realities of religiously plural America, Christians must also join this chorus of support for the Sikh and Muslim victims of hate crimes. Although not a scientific or exhaustive methodology, a recent Google search of mine on "Christian leaders + Sikh temple shooting" revealed precious little by way of public responses by Evangelical leaders, with the curious exception of one comment by Pat Robertson who attributed the violence to atheism, another Evangelical scapegoat. Although they were very visible in the culture wars over same-sex marriage and chicken, in regards to religious hatred and violence, Evangelical leaders and people in the pew seem embarrassingly absent. However, one organization within Evangelicalism, the Evangelical Chapter of the Foundation for Religious Diplomacy, offers its deepest sympathies to the Sikh community of Oak Creek, Michigan for their recent losses. It also extends the same to the Muslim community of Joplin, Missouri as they rebuild their place of worship.

How then might Evangelicals and others respond to this situation beyond the expression of sympathies, seemingly the least that can be offered in response to such tragedies? In this situation Evangelicals must exemplify the best from their religious tradition in the ethic of love for their neighbor.  We must reach out to both the Sikh and Muslim communities in Michigan, Missouri, and beyond to contribute to a national climate that fosters understanding and the ability to not only tolerate, but also to embrace the other in civility despite our religious differences.

America’s Founding Fathers put together a form of government that enabled its citizens to maintain their religious differences and to express them in ways that avoided the religion-fueled wars of Europe.  But episodes like those in Wisconsin and Missouri test these important American ideals. Our grand experiment must continue but something new needs to be added to the mix. Yes, we need to counter religious illiteracy, but that leaves a huge chasm between the religiously informed individual but who remains one who harbors distaste if not hatred for religious others in their community. How then do we incorporate religious literacy programs but do so in ways that also overcome the perception of monstrous religious others?  The prescription comes through peaceful contestation provided for a citizenry committed to a life lived in service to others through religious diplomacy.

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